Jesse Leroy Brown: Ushering in a New Era of Naval Aviation
National Air & Space Museum
Feb 21, 2023
By Thomas Paone
The passing of Brig. Gen. Charles McGee in January 2022 reminded the nation of his service with the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American aviators to serve in the United States armed forces. The Tuskegee Airmen were part of the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor to today’s U.S. Air Force, and served in Europe during World War II, mostly as escort pilots for American bombers. The U.S. Navy, however, had no such group during World War II that allowed African Americans to train and fly as naval aviators. One African American pilot by the name of Oscar Holmes was named a naval aviator during the war, but he had previous flight experience that assisted his entry into the service, and he was often mistaken for being white at the time. Jesse Leroy Brown, however, fought through many hurdles to become the first African American to complete Navy flight training.
Brown, one of six children, was born in Mississippi in 1926, where his father worked numerous jobs, from factory work to sharecropping. Brown became interested in flight at a very young age after his father took him to an airshow in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. From that point on, he constantly thought about flight, and dreamed of a time when he could take to the skies. Brown performed well in school, especially in mathematics, and endeavored to obtain a higher education no matter what it took. In 1944, he enrolled in Ohio State University where he studied architectural engineering. Brown worked numerous jobs, including unloading boxcars for the Pennsylvania Railroad to pay for his education. While in school, he informed his sweetheart, Daisy Pearl Nix, that he planned to join the Naval Reserve to help pay for his educational expenses. He met early resistance to his attempts to enlist in the naval aviation program, despite the active recruitment program at Ohio State. After much effort with the recruitment officer, Brown took the first series of tests granting him entrance into the program. In a letter to a friend in July 1946, he wrote:
“I’m in the Navy, as an Apprentice Seaman, USNR [US Naval Reserve], V-5, on inactive duty. I had to go down to Cincinnati to take the test and for a while I thought the mental exams were going to be too much for me, but I managed to muddle thru the five hours of written tests. One interviewer asked me a lot about aircraft types and thank God I knew the answers. By evening, about half the guys were eliminated. I took the physical tests the next day. No problem. All that running and lifting boxes in the railroad yard took care of me. I’m not sure the Navy really wants me. I’m classified ‘desirable’ rather than ‘outstanding or superior.’ I guess I’m lucky to be ‘desirable.’ However they classify me, I’ll be getting $50 a month for the privilege of taking naval orientation, drilling, etc.…”
Story credit: National Air & Space Museum